'Ford v Ferrari': 6 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

8:45 AM 11/15/2019

by Umber Bhatti

The film explores how a team of tenacious individuals, led by an American automobile company, beat out the world's fastest car.

James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari is driving up some serious Oscar buzz. Based on real-life events, the film chronicles the story behind Ford Motor Co.'s conquest to outperform every car on the racetrack.

In a move to secure the company with the fastest cars, Ford made an offer to buy Ferrari and its fleet of race cars in 1963. Just before the deal was to close, however, Enzo Ferrari pulled out, disagreeing with Ford's demand to retain financial control.

The sudden change of plans fueled Henry Ford II to create his own engine, one that would not only be faster than the Ferrari, but also win a victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a celebrated car race.

The film follows the company's historic quest in crafting the speediest sports car, while celebrating those behind the wheel, notably duo Carroll Hall Shelby (played by Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale).

Ford v Ferrari had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September and later screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is set to drive into theaters nationwide on Nov. 15.

Read more about the cast and the real-life characters they're playing below.

  • Carroll Hall Shelby, portrayed by Matt Damon

    Hailed as one of the masterminds behind Ford Motor Co.'s success, Carroll Hall Shelby took a career path that was anything but straightforward. As a young man, Shelby took on various jobs, from training incoming pilots in the United States Air Force to unsuccessfully running a chicken ranch, before starting what would become a lifelong relationship with Ford.

    Once Shelby got a taste of the race-car scene in 1952, he quickly became a star driver for top names like Aston Marton. But when health complications forced him to retire from the tracks, Shelby switched gears and became a car designer.

    He opened up his business, Shelby American, where he created the "Cobra," a car with an American engine that mirrored the sleekness of a European sports vehicle. Ford Motor Co. reached out to Shelby, and the two collaborated to build more innovative cars — one of them being the winning GT40 featured in Ford v Ferrari.

    But financial concerns and creative differences arose, forcing Shelby to part ways with Ford in 1969, and he went on to work for Dodge. After receiving a heart transplant in 1990, Shelby reunited with Ford. The designer would go on to work with the company up until his death in 2012.

    In an interview with British GQ, Damon, who plays Shelby, said he was touched by his character's lifelong concern for Ken Miles.

    "I always found it interesting that every time I stumbled upon a clip on YouTube of Carroll Shelby talking about Ken Miles, he would get choked up a little bit, even as an old man," the actor said. "It would just catch his throat and he'd say something like, 'Ken Miles is a hell of an engineer.' [His death] was quite a loss for all those guys."

  • Ken Miles, portrayed by Christian Bale

    Ken Miles is a big name in the world of cars.

    From a young age, the driver realized he had a passion for cars and sidestepped a traditional education for an apprenticeship at Wesley Motors. But when World War II broke out, Miles' life took a different route. Enlisted for seven years, he eventually earned the title of sergeant. Afterward, he was offered a job in California that allowed driving to once again become the focal point of his life.

    Though Miles was disliked by many for his stubbornness, when he moved to the States he continued to race and build his own vehicles — racking up an impressive résumé and catching the eye of Carroll Shelby. With their teamwork, Ford Motor Co. went on to win at Le Mans 66, but although the race was a victory for the company, it was a blow to Miles, who didn't emerge as the winning driver due to a technicality, despite his car being the fastest.

    A few months later, Miles was test-driving for Shelby American when the car caught on fire, killing him. Following the accident, the industry added many safety standards that went on to save the lives of countless drivers.

    Speaking to British GQ, Bale, who lost a whopping 40 pounds to play Miles, said, "[James Mangold] sent me the script. And you're the last person to recognize any relationship to yourself. And after a while … he was like, 'Christian, the character's just you. Don't you get that? It's you, you difficult wanker!' That's how he said it to me. 'You know it already.'"

  • Henry Ford II, portrayed by Tracy Letts

    After his father's death in 1941, Henry Ford II became vice president of Ford Motor Co. and was fast-tracked to run the business by 1943.

    With his newfound power, Ford wanted to spice things up and modernize the business he'd inherited. He is considered to be the mastermind behind the infamous deal with Enzo Ferrari, fostering a vision that Ford cars could be synonymous with race cars.

    Working with both Shelby and Miles allowed Ford to revamp his car lineup, ultimately leading the company to victory at Le Mans in 1966. Before the race, Ford was determined as ever, sending team members a simple note stating, "You Better Win."

    In an interview at the Hamptons International Film Festival, Tracy Letts, who played Ford, said that he didn't do thorough research on the role, partly because he couldn't find reliable information. 

    "Not a lot of people remember what Henry Ford II looked or sounded like, nor do they care," Letts said at the screening.

    His decision to take the role stemmed from his appreciation of the script, the actor said. "I thought it was really well-written. … There was this really human basis for the story."

  • Leo Beebe, portrayed by Josh Lucas

    Leo Beebe, played by Josh Lucas, was Ford's director of special vehicles/PR specialist, and is most remembered for making a controversial decision during the 1966 Le Mans race.

    As the race neared its end, only Ford cars remained, signaling a clear victory for the company. But rather than having one winner, Beebe asked the Ford cars to cross the finish line simultaneously to create an image of unity and teamwork. This essentially forced Ken Miles to lose the race he had been determined to win.

    Years later, Beebe stated in an interview that his decision at Le Mans was partly because he was worried over safety and financial concerns. He didn't want drivers to "knock one another off" in their race to victory.

    At the Telluride Film Festival, Lucas spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the film's authenticity, in particular its use of actual racing cars instead of visual effects.

    "The movies that people go see these days in movie theaters are escapist fare; you know it's really mainly made by computers and CGI," the actor said. "At one point we had 200 million dollars of actual Ferraris in that scene, all of it was real and we could feel it. It helps us as actors when you're dealing with a car driving by at 100 miles an hour. … Iit makes a difference."

  • Lee Iaococca, portrayed by Jon Bernthal

    Lee Iacocca started out as a trainee at Ford in 1946 and became president in 1970. Among many accomplishments throughout his tenure at the company, he is linked to launching the Ford Mustang in 1967 and praised as a great salesman.

    For reasons unknown, Ford II fired Iacocca from the company in 1978. But the car executive quickly moved on to Chrysler as president and is said to have saved the brand.

    Jon Bernthal plays Iacocca in the film. In an interview with Collider, the actor said getting to be a part of the movie was a rare opportunity.

    "[Ford v Ferrari] definitely felt for me — in the best sense of the word — like an old-school movie," Bernthal said. "I think rarely do movies like this get made nowadays … the only time they do is when they're in the hands of a real genius, the best of the best. There are a very few out here who get to really do what they want, and I can definitely say that about James [Mangold]."

  • Mollie Miles, portrayed by Caitriona Balfe

    Outlander actress Caitriona Balfe stars as Mollie Miles, Ken Miles' wife, in the film. In an interview with Empire, James Mangold said he made the decision to not reduce Mollie to the stereotypical wife who watches her husband from the background. Rather, he said, Mollie understands and supports her husband's goals. And as a car enthusiast herself, she also enjoys driving.

    At a Toronto Film Festival press conference, Balfe said that the married couple have a solid friendship, which works in their favor. "Their marriage is a strong one, they have great teamwork — that's one of the key components about this film is teamwork," she said.